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Trojans Haunted by Their Mistakes

College football: Nightmarish season continues as California hands USC its fifth consecutive setback, 28-16.


Round up the usual suspects.

Big plays? USC surrendered a long touchdown pass to start the game.

Special teams? There were short punts, a blocked extra point and a blocked field goal.

Costly penalties and turnovers? Yes, plenty of those too.

All the familiar culprits contributed to another miserable afternoon for the Trojans, who lost to California, 28-16, before a desultory homecoming crowd of 54,393 at the Coliseum Saturday.

It was USC's fifth loss in a row--marking the first time the school has suffered five-game losing streaks in consecutive years--and maybe receiver Kareem Kelly put it best when he shook his head and told a reporter: "Just use my answers from last week."

Neither Kelly nor his teammates could conjure any fresh justifications for a slide that seemingly won't end. With this latest defeat, USC (3-5, 0-5) remains winless in Pacific 10 Conference play, mired in the worst conference season in team history.

"This is not an easy time," Coach Paul Hackett said. "The month of October has been a nightmare."

The last five weeks have included first-quarter collapses, fourth-quarter failures and last-second breakdowns. On Saturday, the Trojans held the lead and the momentum at halftime but were outscored 14-0 thereafter.

The Cal players didn't see any mystery to the comeback.

"It was a matter of hustle and desire," defensive lineman Jacob Waasdorp said. "We just came out and executed."

The Golden Bears (3-5, 2-3) won with a solid but unspectacular performance from quarterback Kyle Boller, who completed seven of 12 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Same for running back Joe Igber, who carried 28 times for 80 yards.

They won because they committed few errors. They won because they capitalized on USC's weaknesses.

Coming into this game, Cal knew the Trojans had a banged-up secondary and wasted no time throwing deep. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Phillip Pipersburg flashed up the middle of the field, split two defenders and collected a Boller pass for a 44-yard touchdown.

It was also no secret that USC has struggled on special teams. The Trojans had an extra point blocked after their first touchdown and had a field-goal attempt blocked minutes later.

But, most of all, this USC team has become defined by miscues that lead to opponents' touchdowns.

"It's always our ballgame to lose," linebacker Zeke Moreno said. "It's our mistakes."

Early in the second quarter, quarterback Carson Palmer fumbled after being sandwiched between two defenders in what would become a recurring theme. The Golden Bears recovered on the seven-yard line and needed only two plays to score, Joseph Echema diving over from the one-yard line for a 14-6 lead.

Then came a brief time during which the Trojans were able to bounce back.

They had hoped to throw deep on the Cal secondary, which has been every bit as suspect as their own, but that never quite worked. So they turned instead to what has been the best part of their game the last few weeks--the running of tailback Sultan McCullough.

McCullough started a comeback when he ran into the middle of the line, found no room, then bounced outside and used his sprinter's speed to go 32 yards for a touchdown. The score was 14-13.

On the ensuing kickoff, special teams showed some spark as Frank Strong stripped the ball from Echema and USC recovered. When the Trojans stalled, John Wall kicked a 25-yard field goal to give his team a 16-14 lead at halftime.

"We definitely had the momentum," safety Troy Polamalu said. "But momentum always changes."

This season, it always seems to shift away from USC.

The Golden Bears grabbed the initiative with defense, blitzing Palmer, sacking him on the opening possession of the third quarter and throwing him off stride.

Cal also benefited from the fact that McCullough, who rushed for 122 yards, touched the ball only eight times in the second half.

Again, it was mistakes that cost USC dearly.

A holding penalty on the Trojan offensive line not only nullified a long Palmer scramble in the third quarter, it pinned the team against its goal line. After a short punt, Cal needed to go only 30 yards to retake the lead.

Boller finished the short trip by throwing a middle screen to receiver Derek Swafford, who followed two linemen into the end zone for an 12-yard touchdown. After a two-point conversion, the score was 22-16.

USC could not mount a drive and had to punt again. This time, Jemeel Powell caught the ball at the 17-yard line, sidestepped Moreno and dashed 83 yards up the middle, dragging safety DeShaun Hill across the goal line.

"You can't play raggedy special teams and expect to win in this conference," Hackett said. USC was behind 28-16 and had no answer.

Twice Palmer tried to go deep. Twice his passes were intercepted. It was a bad end to a night on which he would complete 19 of 39 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown.

Things got worse with 5:13 remaining and Cal facing a fourth and one at midfield. The Trojans called timeout but could not decide which players to send into the game.

They were ultimately called for an illegal substitution, which gave Cal a first down and ended any hopes of a comeback.

"They outmaneuvered us and put us in a position where we made a huge error," Hackett said.

For the Golden Bears, it was a third consecutive victory over USC and a way to keep the season from slipping away. Said Coach Tom Holmoe: "To come down here and get a win is good for us."

For USC, the nightmare continues.

"It's tough and it's getting tougher," Moreno said. "Teams know we're down and they're going to try to keep us down."


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